The Empty Room

     by Richard Risemberg

The observer is asked to imagine an empty room. The door to this room is closed, though not locked, but the observer is requested not to open the door. The room is a smallish bedroom, of a size common in older houses or apartment buildings in the United States, with room for a bed, a side table, a small armoire, a dresser, and a single chair. However, none of these artifacts is in the room as the observer is to imagine it. The room is empty of everything but light and air.

There is a window on the wall opposite the door. This is a plain sash window, lacking curtains or drapes; it too is closed, but it faces west, and at this moment sunlight leans through it and makes trapezoids of brilliant pallid white on the floor of the room. This floor is made of narrow strips of wood, probably oak; the wood has been varnished but the varnish is visibly worn, and in places there are dents caused perhaps by furniture, or perhaps by objects falling or being thrown to the floor. Nevertheless, imagining the floor may give the observer the warm feeling that artifacts of wood often inspire. It is permitted that the observer feel this warmth.

The walls of the room are ordinary plaster painted a plain flat white. The corners are simple; this is or was most likely a working person's bedroom; there is nothing showy about it. The only interruption to the plainness of white walls is the moldings around the door, and the window frame and its sill. The moldings, frame, and sill are of course painted white, though in this case using glossy paint. The observer is asked to imagine several faint circles of different sizes staining the paint of the windowsill. Evidently the windowsill was used to hold bottles, perhaps of what in latter days would be called personal care products, or perhaps one of the marks represents the sojourn of a water glass. The observer is free to decide what may have caused the stains, which are faint and old. The observer's imagination must squint to see them in the glare of the sunlight.

The only signs of recent life are the remnants of cobwebs, one in a high corner of the ceiling, one dangling under the windowsill. Neither one is large; the observer is asked to imagine them as mere gray wisps interrupting the faded whiteness of the room. There is no trace of the spiders who made them and then starved in the closed and empty room. It is permitted that the observer feel a pang of sadness for the wasted lives of whatever tiny arachnids made the webs. It is quite normal for such a feeling to arise. The cobwebs however are not a significant element of the room. It is the influence of sunlight that predominates.

The room is not static; the planet moves, and the room moves with it, and so the observer is asked to imagine the trapezoids of sunlight creeping across the wooden floor and ever so slowly approaching, then touching, the wall. In fact the sunlight should touch two of the walls at once, at the lower corner of the room, and then begin to creep up both, the light now folded into a shape that may appear three-dimensional to the observer, though of course it would have no dimension at all even if it were not at present imaginary. The light also changes color as it moves, for the sun would be lowering in the sky as the day progresses, so it becomes first yellowish, then decidedly yellow, then orange, and then hints at a reddish flame color, until finally it becomes gray and then vanishes. The sun has set; its light is gone.

But there is still light. Somewhere outside the room must be a streetlamp, which casts a faint image of the window onto the wall beside the door. This image does not of course move. The observer may wonder whether a previous occupant of this room may have studied the cast of lamplight during sleepless nights, perhaps worrying over money or mourning a lost love or vanished opportunity. Then again, such an occupant may have slept with the window shade pulled down, feeling at peace and dreaming Elysian dreams. In any case the room as the observer is to imagine it does not have a window shade, so the lamplight on the far wall predominates and perhaps inevitably brings to mind lonely thoughts.

It is quite normal to have these thoughts under the circumstances.

The observer may or may not in fact be lonely; it is of no consequence. The lonely thoughts engendered by the image of the lamplight can be salutary, in the manner of a sad song. The previous occupant may have hummed sad songs while watching the unmoving and unmoved lamplight, and perhaps found solace in the commonality of feeling with a most likely unknown composer. Perhaps this is the ultimate function of all art. The observer, however, should not wax philosophical at this point, but remain alert, for the situation is about to change.

The moon, which has been following the sun out of sight on the other side of the house or apartment building, has now passed its zenith and is beginning to shine into the window. The observer is asked to imagine the first edge of moonlight touching the windowsill. As always, the light of the moon exhibits a quality often referred to as purity, though one may contend that in fact it is of a color that is bluer than pure white. This does not matter: what matters is that the light bears the connotation of purity, and that it inspires certain feelings that may be universal across human cultures.

The observer is asked to imagine the moonlight affecting the observer thusly. The window panes seem to glisten, and the windowsill glows, and after a certain time the moonlight spills onto the floor, again forming pallid trapezoids, yet giving a feeling of coolness rather than warmth. The observer may wish to imagine the prior occupant watching the moonlight move across the bed as the night proceeds, and feeling elation or despair depending on the circumstances causing the prior occupant's sleeplessness. However, there is no longer a bed in the room as the observer is asked to imagine it, and so the moonlight creeps across the floor and up the walls, in this case shining on the door of the room, which is still to remain shut. The observer is to watch carefully but calmly until the moon itself has set, and there is again only the faint imprint of the streetlamp upon the wall.

The observer may note that this imprint is not as immutable as might be expected, that it in fact exhibits an uncertain disturbance. As the imprint is faint, it is difficult to determine what may cause this, but the observer is offered two possibilities: that there is a wispy branch between the streetlamp and the window, and it is moving slightly in a breeze, or that a moth is orbiting the lamp and barely occulting its light as it circles fruitlessly around the illuminating artifice. The observer is encouraged to accept the second hypothesis, and to settle down and watch the faint imprint of light and its almost imperceptible perturbations for an indeterminate time. The observer may follow what thoughts such a watchfulness brings to mind, but should remain diligently watchful.

This episode will not last long; now that the moon has set, the dawn should not be far behind. And in fact the observer will next note that there is a tint of gray to the darkness beyond the window, and that the imprint of the streetlamp is becoming less discernible. Soon it is evident that the dawn is coming, and a gray clarity begins to suffuse the room. The observer is encouraged to imagine feeling both weightless and weary after this vigil, though the sensations may appear to be contradictory. Many conjunctions of feeling appear to be so but are not so. The observer is then requested to allow a feeling of elation to arise in response to the growing light of morning, for it is now past dawn, and the room is bright and shadowless with the light in the window.

At this point the observer's vigil may be ended. The observer has done well, and is requested to imagine standing up, perhaps with some effort, perhaps stretching afterwards, and at long last going to the door in the wall opposite the window. The observer may now open the door. It is time to go forth into the long dark hallway beyond.